There’s a good movie in the second Hobbit installment—in fact there are two or three good movies in there. There’s also a handful of mediocre movies, and at least one terrible one.
It’s natural that there would be some difficulties in stretching a 300-page novel written for a younger audience into eight or nine hours of PG-13 screen time. But the tonal troubles don’t break solely along the divide between J.R.R. Tolkien’s original novel, and Peter Jackson’s adaptation; it’s riddled with fault lines, and the fact that the product still ends up being for the most part watchable is a testament to Jackson’s greatest skill: the management of chaos.
All of Jackson’ Tolkien productions (as well as his King Kong, but let’s be charitable and not talk about that one) have been enormously complicated undertakings, requiring the coordination of several thousand people engaged in tasks such as scouting sites, planting gardens, forging swords, training horses, playing woodwinds, changing faces, compositing creatures, altering images, editing scenes, and running, running very long ways indeed. All this is in the service of creating immersive landscapes that must be distinguishable not only from one another but also from any obvious reference point in our own world. The best of the movies in The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug is the story embedded within the larger film of the making of these visual environments, and all the work it took, from concept to realization, to make them come alive on screen.
But the sort of chaos that makes this possible comes at a cost, which is what makes everything else in the film such a muddle. There are at least five stories being carried on simultaneously, and no single one of them is ever tonally consistent with any other for long. Tolkien’s original book, of course, is a fairly straightforward heroic quest led by Thorin the dwarf (Richard Armitage) and Bilbo the hobbit (Martin Freeman), leavened with humor courtesy of the dwarves and hints of something darker lurking somewhere beyond the tale. The movie ramps up these elements dramatically, providing action-comedy sequences of what I can only think to call dwarf frolics—beards and axes and cartoonish goblin deaths—as well as scenes from Gandalf, P.I., in which the wizard (Ian McKellen) investigates the supposedly abandoned fortress of the Necromancer. These are generally successful, but each cut between them provokes momentary confusion as the viewer reorients himself to the new tone.
But Jackson adds on top of these still more layers: a tale of political resistance in Laketown, and an unlikely love triangle involving two elves and a dwarf. The former is intended to flesh out the character of Bard (Luke Evans), who is destined to play a major role in the final installment of the series; however, as the government he is resisting concerns itself more with controlling trade than with marshalling vast, evil armies or murdering an entire homeland’s worth of dwarves, it doesn’t register too high on the Middle Earth scale of tyranny.
Likewise, the absurd love triangle is meant to forge connections across to the Lord of the Rings movies by giving the elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom) something to do other than killing goblins and a spider or two. The results, as with so much else in the movie, are mixed: the female elf, Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly), would be a welcome addition to a male-dominated cast, if she didn’t have to take time out from kicking ass to flirt with Legolas and the dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner) in turn. One scene where she has to heal an arrow wound in Kili’s leg is particularly absurd, and encapsulates the movie’s problems: she is ecstatic in an overtly sexual, radiant St. Teresa sort of way, and yet it’s all taking place in front of several dwarves as well as Bard’s annoying children, far away from the Lonely Mountain where the actual plot of book and film is playing out.
Even now Jackson is in post-production on the third installment, The Hobbit: There and Back Again, which will complete the saga next year; if he is to continue mining Tolkien after that, he’ll have to dig into The Silmarillion—and while he could probably do justice to something like the Fall of Gondolin, it’s probably better to give it a rest. He is already set to tread on the best joke in The Hobbit—the bump on Bilbo’s head that knocks him out and makes him (and the reader) miss the climactic Battle of the Five Armies—in order to present yet another huge war scene, bigger, badder, huger than all that has gone before.
And that’s a pity, because despite the undoubted financial and qualified critical success of the franchise, the more excess Jackson piles onto it, the less confident he seems in his own work. It remains to be seen whether he can control his impulse to excess, and marry the peerless atmospheric craft of his Tolkien films to the tonal coherence of earlier, more compact films such as Heavenly Creatures. In the meantime, viewers will just have to enjoy the Hobbits less for what they take from Tolkien than from the bigger, dumber pleasures they borrow from more contemporary sources.